Four Factors Broncos Must Consider Before Re-Signing Chris Harris, Jr.
Chris Harris, Jr. will go down as one of the biggest undrafted free agent finds in Denver Broncos history. Harris has come a long way since his rookie season, in which he was mostly limited to special teams but ultimately got more snaps on defense, establishing himself as one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL.
Back in 2014, Harris took a contract that, on one hand, was a significant raise from what he made under his UDFA rookie deal and the second-round restricted free-agent tender he got in his fourth season with the team. On the other hand, it was a value deal among NFL cornerbacks and, even after the raise he got this offseason, remains so.
This offseason, whether the Broncos extend Harris or not, he's going to be in line for a bigger payday — one that, in all likelihood, will no longer represent a value deal, but could instead reset the market.
Harris isn't the only one that could be cashing in. The free-agent cornerback class for 2020 will be deep in terms of talent. Quite a few corners will be looking for bigger paydays.
But even if the Broncos don't extend Harris, the cornerback market is still a market that the team will have to explore, and it's the one position in which they need to be prepared to spend money, even as prices are likely to be high.
Let's examine why.
This past offseason, there weren't a lot of cornerbacks who signed big contracts — most of them took lower-cost deals. It's easy to think about, say, Bryce Callahan getting paid well, but the $7 million average-per-year salary and $10M in full guarantees were still low compared to what other corners have received. At the time, Josh Norman was the highest-paid cornerback, getting $15M APY with $36.5M in full guarantees on a contract he signed back in 2016.
But then along came the Miami Dolphins, who decided to extend one of their own players, that being cornerback Xavien Howard. He received a contract extension that paid him $15.1M APY and gave him more than $27M in full guarantees. His contract has set the bar for the upcoming free agency period.
Add to this the fact that safeties got paid generously this past offseason and, now, it's the cornerbacks who are likely going to want their turn. That's particularly true when you look at some of the names who could soon hit the open market.
Along with Harris, Jr., there's Byron Jones, Marcus Peters, Eli Apple, Trae Waynes, Rashaan Melvin, Brian Poole, James Bradberry and Logan Ryan. These players vary in terms of talent, but all of them could be seeking a big payday this offseason. And this is just the start of the list.
With so many cornerbacks set to hit free agency, all eyes should be on which of these players signs an extension first with their current team — because whoever does is going to set the market for what everyone else gets.
Cost of Doing Business
Also, keep in mind that cornerback is considered a premium position in terms of what salaries a player may command. The top tier for premium salaries goes to quarterbacks, with pass rushers getting the second tier. But on the third tier, cornerbacks go right alongside offensive tackles and wide receivers.
Knowing these factors, it wouldn't surprise me to see contracts handed out to the top corners that average at least $16M per year, but could more likely hit $17M to $18M per year. This is particularly true if the salary cap goes up as everyone expects.
In terms of fully guaranteed money, that could vary, but agents are sure to want to exceed the $36.5M in full guarantees that Norman received. No cornerback has exceeded the full guarantees or total guarantees ($50M) that Norman got. But I would expect that to change this offseason.
So why would the Broncos want to push hard in free agency for a cornerback, whether it's Harris, J. or somebody else?
A Position of Need
Simple — the Broncos don't have enough talent at cornerback to go through 2020 without a veteran in the mix. While it would be nice if Bryce Callahan can stay healthy, the Broncos can't put all their chips on him.
And as I've discussed before, it's better if the Broncos put their money into the defense this coming offseason. That's because they already have a No. 1 wide receiver (Courtland Sutton) and a tight end (Noah Fant) on cheap rookie deals.
If Drew Lock works out at quarterback, that's another offensive player on a cheap deal. The same holds true for offensive guard Dalton Risner and running back Phillip Lindsay.
Furthermore, if the Broncos invest their first two draft picks on offense — and this is a draft class in which it would make sense — that's more players on that side of the ball on cheap rookie deals. So it makes sense to commit the cap dollars to defense, in the hopes that things fall into place on offense.
And given that the talent level at cornerback should be good, it makes sense to find a cornerback in free agency if the Broncos are unable to retain Harris.
Obviously, Denver should consider certain factors when it comes to paying a high price, ranging from scheme fit to targeting players who have not missed a lot of time with injuries. It was one thing to take a chance on Callahan, who at least has a contract that is reasonably priced when compared to other veterans. However, right tackle might be a different position, but we saw what happened when the Broncos truly went 'all-in' on the injury-prone Ja'Wuan James.
There is one cornerback who is definitely worth going 'all-in' for, and that would be Byron Jones, who is likely to hit free agency with the Dallas Cowboys still not having extended Dak Prescott and needing to extend Amari Cooper.
Brian Poole has played well this season and might be worth a look (though he won't come cheap now). Eli Apple isn't a dominant player, but he is talented and he will be just 25 years old next season.
Other cornerbacks aren't worth an 'all-in' contract, but they should get consideration on contracts that, while they shouldn't reset the market, would still commit a fair amount of cash to the player.
No matter what the Broncos decide to do at cornerback, it's clear they need to take the plunge at this particular position. The cap space the Broncos are expected to have before making any cuts, the offensive players on low-cost rookie deals, and the fact that this is an overall good group of free agents, makes it worth pursuing a cornerback in free agency.
Whether that's Chris Harris, Jr. or another player remains to be seen, but one thing is certain; if the Broncos want the best possible talent, they'll need to pay the premium.